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Camels and bats and MERS, oh my

WHEN a man with what looked like a nasty case of flu showed up at Community Hospital in Munster, Indiana on April 28th, the facility did what it always does with infectious-disease patients: it isolated him in a room with heavily filtered negative air-flow and treated him as if he had the plague. Which he did, or at least a modern-day equivalent.

A health-care worker, the man had just flown in from Saudi Arabia—ground zero for the coronavirus that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS. The hospital took extreme precautions in handling the patient, and used the RFID tags that all its staff wear to track those who had been near him. About 50 were put under home isolation,…

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 Camels and bats and MERS, oh my

MERS is something of a medical mystery. The disease is widely found in dromedary camels, which have long carried the virus. In the Middle East camels are worked, raced and even kept as pets.

California Department of Public Health

Common symptoms in patients with MERS-CoV include a respiratory illness with fever, cough, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties. Most patients have had pneumonia. Some patients have also had kidney failure. Outbreaks in health care facilities have been frequent. Patients with underlying co-morbidities such as diabetes, heart or lung disease, or immunosuppression, appear to be at the highest risk of developing severe disease. Fortunately, it appears that the virus is not readily transmitted person-to-person.


Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is a viral respiratory illness that is new to humans. It was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has since spread to several other countries, including the United States. Most people infected with MERS-CoV developed severe acute respiratory illness, including fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Many of them have died.


Keeping you up to date with the latest outbreaks.


Phylogenetic analysis and high MERS-CoV viral load in nasal swabs of dromedary camels suggest local zoonotic transmission through the respiratory route.


MERS-CoV is a type of coronavirus, similar to the one that caused SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) or the common cold. MERS-CoV has not been previously identified in humans. Like the SARS virus, MERS-CoV is most similar to coronaviruses found in bats. It has been detected in camels, and regular handling of these animals may pose a major risk of human transmissions. It has not been detected in other livestock, but several cases of MERS-CoV in those who handle camels have been reported.


Listen to some of the latest news.

Sabin Vaccine Institute

Past and ongoing pandemic threats from coronaviruses have prompted a new urgency to develop a pan-coronavirus vaccine as a global countermeasure. Both SARS and MERS are classified as Category C biodefense agents by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, with an intense capacity to inflict devastating disease outcomes and disrupt local, national and global economies.


MERS-CoV is closely related to coronaviruses found in bats, suggesting that bats might be a reservoir of MERS-CoV. Camels likely serve as hosts for MERS-CoV. The presence of case clusters strongly suggests that human-to-human transmission occurs.


The full picture on the source is not yet clear. Strains of MERS‐CoV that match human strains have been isolated from camels in Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. These and other studies have found MERS‐CoV antibodies in camels across Africa and the Middle East.

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